In popular culture, the Alamo, a Spanish mission in San Antonio, is regarded as an untrammeled symbol of freedom. Referred to as the “cradle of Texas liberty,” in Texas, devotion to it is fervent. Its name is invoked incessantly: San Antonio is referred to as “the Alamo City” and corporations appropriate the Alamo name and image.

The “defenders of the Alamo,” the men who died there at the hands of the Mexican army in 1836, are regarded as heroic martyrs who valued liberty more than life, and who paid the supreme price on behalf of Texas. They were quickly compared to the 300 Spartans, whose self-sacrifice allegedly saved Greece by slowing the advance of a mighty Persian army. But their alleged martial prowess (most of them did not have much training as soldiers) and the military significance of the 1836 battle (which was virtually nil) were wildly exaggerated.

They did not venture to the Alamo for the purpose of dying there, they were willing to surrender, and they did not fight to the death in a fabled “last stand.” Their mixed motives for fighting against Mexico were suppressed, hidden under the fig leaf of liberty. In the process, the primary reasons for the revolt against Mexico in 1835-36 and the Mexican-American War in 1846-48 have been obscured, as has the overriding significance of the Alamo as a symbol. 

The March 6, 1836 Battle of the Alamo likely lasted less than an hour. It would have been even shorter had general Santa Anna waited for the arrival of his largest artillery pieces. It was actually the second battle of the Alamo, since the makeshift fortress had to be captured by the Texans before it could be “defended” by them. In December of 1835, a force composed of rebels, insurgent squatters, and mercenaries from the U.S. took San Antonio and the Alamo. Texas independence was not declared until March 2, 1836, a fact unknown to either side at the Alamo on March 6. Thus the Alamo “defenders” in the 1836 battle could only claim possession of it for less than three months – and only in an unofficial capacity. 

Santa Anna executed the few combatants that surrendered inside the Alamo. It is less frequently admitted that a substantial portion of Alamo “defenders” escaped outside the mission’s walls. Santa Anna had them killed as well. Under the Tornel Decree of 1835, armed insurgents who were not part of a declared war between nations were regarded as pirates (they would be terrorists in contemporary parlance). Mexican historian Josefina Zoraida Vázquez terms the decree “a desperate attempt to maintain control” of Mexico’s territory. 

How did this situation arise? Historian Andrew J. Torget has demonstrated that the dramatic expansion of cotton production in the Southeastern U.S. caused enormous demand for draft animals. Native American tribes met this demand by looting Spanish and (after independence in 1821) Mexican horses and mules, which they exchanged with traders for advanced rifles. With this advanced weaponry, the Comanches in particular imperiled Spanish/Mexican settlements in what is now Texas. Thus the effects of slavery in the U.S. indirectly destabilized Spain’s and Mexico’s fragile foothold on this territory, creating the opportunity for Anglo-American colonization on very generous terms. 

Steven F. Austin, the most important impresario (land agent), chose the finest land in what is now Southeastern Texas and modeled his settlements on Southern slave states. He incentivized slavery by making additional land available for each enslaved person that was brought into Texas. Mexico provided little oversight, though tensions soon developed over the issue of slavery. Mexico imposed several measures to end or limit slavery, and the Anglo-American colonists skillfully found ways to amend, delay, or defy them.

But no one doubted that slavery was a temporary expedient that Mexico would abolish unequivocally. Alarmed by the volume of Anglo-American immigration, Mexico attempted to end it in 1830. But by 1834, that number had doubled from 10,000 to 21,000. Unauthorized immigrants, some of them in the form of organized militias recruited within slave states in blatant violation of the Neutrality Act, played a significant role in the revolt that broke out in 1835. Without the New Orleans Greys, who clamored for battle, San Antonio and the Alamo would not have fallen in late 1835. 

The conjunction of slavery interests in the U.S., or “slavocracy,” which included the brilliant and devious President Andrew Jackson, agitated incessantly – though sometimes surreptitiously – for the spread of slavery. Slavery interests openly – though often unofficially, to avoid violating treaties that could bring European intervention – supported the “independence” of Texas. The slavocracy funded and equipped an invading army, hoping to ultimately create one or more slave states out of Mexican territory. The men who fought against Mexico were promised free land. Most of the combatants were relatively recent arrivals, as were most of the delegates to the convention where independence was declared on March 2, 1836.

Speculation in Mexican land had become rampant, and it was not confined to the Southern U.S. But the scripts they traded only had value if the land could be wrenched from Mexico with finality. Cotton was booming. Slavery enabled enormous profits. Most of the official Anglo-American colonists and the undocumented immigrants came from the Southern U.S. They were comfortable with – and often passionately dedicated to – the white supremacist ideology that prevailed in slave states. A Texan’s letter printed in the New Orleans Bee in 1834 decried “degraded” Mexicans as products of racial pollution: “the unfortunate race of Spaniard, Indian and African, is so blended that the worst qualities of each predominate.”  

All of the combatants inside the Alamo during the 1836 battle knew that they were fighting for the institution of slavery, as surely as they knew they were fighting for Mexican land. James Bowie, a slave trader and smuggler who William C. Davis says was “easily the largest land swindler of his era,” had arrived in Texas in 1830 with 109 enslaved people. Bowie married well and quickly amassed claims on enormous amounts of Mexican land. His desire to keep Texan forces in San Antonio prevailed, though it was distant from the precious East Texas cotton fields, and of much less strategic value than other garrisons. General Sam Houston thought the Alamo should have been blown up and abandoned. Not surprisingly, the Alamo garrison received few reinforcements or supplies from their rebel compatriots. 

After his victory at the Alamo, Santa Anna foolishly separated himself from his more capable generals and the forces under his command were trapped and routed at San Jacinto on April 21, 1836. Santa Anna’s capture put an end to fighting, inaugurating the slavery-based Republic of Texas, which Torget calls a “dress-rehearsal” for the Confederate States of America.

Benjamin F. Lundy, a Quaker abolitionist who hoped to establish a colony of free Blacks, warned in 1836 that a Texan victory would lead to annexation and succession, because the slave states would “confederate a new and distinct slaveholding republic, in opposition to the whole free republic of the North.” He prophesied a sanguinary toll: “blood will flow in torrents,” drenching the land in “crimson gore.” The 1845 annexation of Texas sparked the Mexican-American War, engineered by President James K. Polk, who was Jackson’s protégé.  It resulted in the seizure of half of Mexico. The manner of the Texas annexation (without fixed boundaries, in order to provoke a larger war of conquest) and disagreements over where slavery would spread in new territories were important causes of the U.S. Civil War. 

Before he learned of the victory at San Jacinto, Stephen F. Austin, in a May 4, 1836 letter to Senator L. F. Linn of Missouri, described the war as one “waged by the mongrel Spanish-Indian and Negro race, against civilization and the Anglo-American race.” Austin says he labored “like a slave to Americanize Texas” to fashion “a barrier of safety to the southwestern frontier.” 

The Texan soldiers who were killed at the Alamo in 1836 were aggrandized in a hagiographic manner more appropriate to a state religion than a state history. This type of memorialization celebrated racial superiority and contributed to the development of a racialized Anglo-Saxonism that prized dominance. The term Manifest Destiny originated in a discussion of the 1845 annexation of Texas, though Jeff Long calls the March 6, 1836 battle at the Alamo its “inaugural moment.”

“Remember the Alamo” was a call for vengeance against Mexicans that was used as a rallying cry at San Jacinto and during the Mexican-American War. James E. Crisp points out that the Alamo “became a hammer for bashing Mexican Americans in Texas.” It is still the preeminent anti-Mexican symbol and slogan (both in and out of Texas), which is presumably why President Donald Trump mentioned the “last stand” at “the beautiful, beautiful Alamo” in his recent State of the Union address.  

During the Civil War, the Alamo church actually housed slave auctions. The second president of the Republic of Texas, Mirabeau B. Lamar, tried to kill or expel all Native Americans. Alamo lore served to define Mexicans and their descendants as enemies of the state. Thus, if one insists on calling the Alamo a symbol of liberty, I would say it best represents the liberty of whites to enslave, kill, expel, segregate, oppress, and otherwise dominate people of color. The Alamo is the cradle of Texas slavery, and a host of other oppressions.

This commentary derives from research conducted for The Other Side of the Alamo: Art Against the Myth, an exhibition at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center for San Antonio’s Tricentennial in 2018, which was funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

Ruben C. Cordova is an art historian and curator who has curated over 30 exhibitions and has written or contributed to 18 catalogues and books. His revisionist exhibition, “The Day of the Dead in Art”...